The Judicial Board of the Associated Students of Portland State University voted to deny pursuing articles of impeachment against Student Fee Committee member Philip Arola.
Arola was accused of being a white supremacist and a member of the far-right group the Proud Boys by members of the student body and student government. The impeachment hearing is a result of an ongoing controversy that began with a contentious argument concerning lack of diversity in student government on an Instagram photo posted by the ASPSU.
Fouad Mohiadeen, another SFC member involved in the controversy, has completely resigned from his position within ASPSU as of Sept. 19.
The Judicial Board’s decision about Arola and the resignation of Mohiadeen marks the end of weeks-long debates concerning the future of their positions within the SFC. It is unclear whether members of the student body and ASPSU will continue to fight to have Arola removed from the SFC, but for now, his position is secure.
Arola said he’s happy with the decision. “I don’t think there was anything that was impeachable, whether you like it or not,” he said. “You can think it was as bad as you want or not, but in terms of impeachable: no.”
“As I’ve already said, I disavowed the ideologies, so I’m not upholding any oppression, nor do I intend to.”
Mohiadeen said he stepped down for personal reasons, not because of the controversy. “When I thought hard about it, I realized the only reason I’d be staying on after my personal reasons would be out of spite for a few toxic people,” he said.
Judicial Board vote: September 23
The ASPSU Judicial Board convened on Sept. 23 for a final vote regarding the impeachment of Arola. They voted 2-2.
Alexandra Modjeski, chair of the Judicial Board, voted to affirm the articles of impeachment. “I hesitate to step the line between silencing opinions because we don’t like them versus genuine concern about whether those actions and opinions of those individuals impact the ability to do their job,” she said.
“Not that I think Arola is a white supremacist or a bad person or think that Republicans don’t have a voice within ASPSU—because they do represent a fraction or a subgroup of the student body, and they should be heard—but in a way that allows us to act democratically and allows us to do our jobs politically,” Modjeski said.
Judicial Board member Hanna Anderson also voted to approve the articles of impeachment.
Members Tiffany Cummings and Luis Alvarez voted to deny the articles of impeachment. “My heart aches for the frustration and pain that marginalized people feel,” Cummings said, “but I cannot in good conscience say that there is—according to our constitution—cause to move forward with the articles of impeachment.”
“I feel like we’ve all gotten to know Philip during his time here,” Alvarez said. “And I feel like it would be unfair to disregard our experience with him on a personal level, because his agenda is not violence and all this. I saw no indication of that at all before this.”
According to Modjeski, unless the Judicial Board votes unanimously or 4-1, the board cannot move forward with impeachment proceedings.
“I don’t think the burden of Philip Arola’s past should fall on the shoulders of the student body,” said ASPSU Senator India Wynne following the verdict. “They shouldn’t have to set their pain aside so that he can have a teachable moment.”
“This all is so much larger than Philip Arola,” said PSU student and activist Angeline Booth.
“This represents so much more. The system that he has upheld is killing people.”
After the decision was reached, Arola said he feels like the board made the right decision.
Mohiadeen stated in an email that he regrets ever engaging with the argument on Instagram but said he feels no regret for what he said in anger after seeing what he said were “racist” and “nasty” comments directed toward him and the SFC.
In terms of Arola’s verdict, Mohiadeen said, “Why should Philip be impeached? Philip has already denounced any involvement with the Proud Boys. So what is this really? Let’s just be honest here: He’s a Republican and that is a sin at Portland State.”
When asked about his opinion of PSU following the controversy, Mohiadeen said, “I personally couldn’t encourage anyone to come to Portland State University. It’s a toxic place. I filed no-contact orders against a few of the students I find to be extremely toxic and it is in effect now. I don’t want to have anything to do with them, and I find them to be dangerous. These are people who will spread false allegations against others they don’t like for simply not agreeing with them.”
The Instagram argument
The photo that sparked the controversy featured all seven members of the SFC standing with their arms crossed and was criticized in the comments for lacking diversity.
Multiple members of the SFC and ASPSU responded to the comments and engaged in an argument that quickly devolved into name-calling, divisive language, accusations and threats, according to some members of the student body involved in the argument.
A photo of Arola seated at a table with multiple members of the Proud Boys and political consultant Roger Stone in March of 2018 began to circulate online. In the photo, everyone is flashing an “okay” hand gesture, which has become widely considered to be a white nationalist symbol. According to a report by the anti-defamation league, the symbol is regarded as a white nationalist symbol after a 4chan hoax in 2017.
Mohiadeen attracted further scrutiny after engaging in the argument and for refusing to apologize at an SFC open public forum occurring directly after the argument took place.
Following the Instagram argument and the circulation of the photo, many members of the student body and ASPSU began to demand Mohiadeen and Arola be removed from their positions.
Open Public Forum: August 27
An open public forum was held by the SFC on Aug. 27 where Mohiadeen and Arola addressed the situation.
At that meeting, Arola said that his “brief interest in the Proud Boys was not because of an interest in white nationalism,” and he apologized for his “error in judgement” and for “associating with unsavory people.” However, he said he would “not apologize for [his] political beliefs.” Arola is both an SFC member and the president of the PSU College Republicans.
As for the “okay” hand gesture being made in the photo, Arola said: “I hate to resort to cliche, but it was a different time. At that point, not a lot of people, not a lot of extremely bad people—I won’t say their names because they’re people who crave attention—they hadn’t used that sign. They hadn’t appropriated that sign at that point, so I didn’t have the same trepidations that I do today about using that hand gesture.”
Mohiadeen apologized to some community members involved in the situation who he felt he had treated unfairly and to condemn others who he thought treated him unfairly.
“I allowed my own feelings of pain and frustration to steer the social media discourse,” Mohiadeen said. “I made responses in anger, and however much that is not an excuse for my actions, I believe it touches on a common thread between both my own comments and the comments I was responding to.”
Voicing his frustration for what he said were “racist and sexist remarks” made toward the SFC, Mohiadeen asked, “How can a group of students be so aware of hurtful stereotypes placed unjustly upon themselves and yet perpetuate these base stereotypes on other students?”
Following Arola and Mohiadeen’s remarks, many members of ASPSU and the student body called for them to step down.
Judicial Board meeting: September 9
A Judicial Board meeting was held on Sept. 9 to hear testimonies from the student body and members of ASPSU after an attention request was filed by Grace Hagemann, the Equal Rights Advocacy Director of ASPSU, to have Mohiadeen and Arola impeached from ASPSU.
Mohiadeen was absent from the meeting, and testimonies focused largely on Arola’s alleged involvement with the Proud Boys and white supremacism.
Emotions ran high during the course of the meeting as attendees implored members of the Judicial Board to either retain or impeach Arola from ASPSU.
Critics of Arola pointed out that at the previous meeting, he had said that his involvement with the Proud Boys “began and ended” with the photograph. However, he later said that he had gone drinking with them “a couple of times.”
“You may ask, how could this be the first, last and only interaction Philip has had with the Proud Boys that he’s said on the record many times?” Angeline Booth asked. “If it is, in fact, not his first, last, and only interaction with the Proud Boys, why did he lie on the record to constituents?”
SFC member Gabe Trumbley said Arola compromised his role as the liason to the Queer and Women’s resource centers for the SFC.
ASPSU senator Alessandra Peraza-Ahuillon said that, as a member of a marginalized community, she is afraid to be in the same room as Arola and stressed the importance of students feeling safe when other students have power and influence over them.
Some attendees at the meeting attested to Arola’s character and rejected the notion that he is a white supremacist.
“The so-called evidence against [Arola and Mohiadeen] is so utterly underwhelming that I shudder to think that anyone would find it enough to consider judicial action against them, let alone push for it,” said ASPSU senator Mallory Hawke in a written statement.
Some attendees also criticized the political climate of PSU.
“What is being requested of this body by a very small group of radical students and ASPSU members is that the judiciary of our organization engage in emotion and subjectively based mob justice with the intention of impeaching political opponents,” said Tristin Crum, executive staff director for ASPSU in a written statement.
“As a Black woman, I do not think that [Philip] is a white supremacist,” said ASPSU President Violet Gibson. “I’ve had conversations with him and with other people of marginalized communities and never once has he made me unsafe. All he has ever done is try to understand my point of view.”
“I believe in restorative justice, and this whole thing about cancel culture and just essentially exiling people from a community that they want to be in, I don’t necessarily find that to be the correct action,” Gibson said.